It has taken a while for me to wrap my brain around the murders in Tuscon – and truth be told, I don’t really think I’m there yet. As a former candidate for office – someone who did meet-and-greets, forums, and door-to-door campaigning – I never imagined a voter would decide my outstretched hand would be best met with a bullet. I was far less surprised that the conversation moved at warp-speed from praying for the victims to scoring points against political opponents – nor the strange ignorance that came with the belief that somehow, some way, this era of political discource was fouler and more heavily charged than any other in our history.
So many Americans have forgotten their own history. For the entire First Party era (1790s-1820s), violence in politics was considered so normal there were formalized rules for it (duels). In 1786, an alienated ex-Revolutionary War officer named Daniel Shays led an armed insurrection against the elected government of Massachusetts, and the voters responded by handing the government over to his allies. Alexander Hamilton’s attempt to save the Federalist Party from ex-Jeffersonian Aaron Burr led to the duel that ended to the former’s life and the latter’s political career. The rhetoric from any presidential campaign involving an Adams would make a 21st century voter, politician, or analyst recoil in horror. In the 1830s, the country was wracked by pro-slavery mobs that destroyed abolitionist newspapers and actually killed Elijah Lovejoy.
If that’s not enough, Google “Kansas 1856.”
The fact is that America is a far less politically violent place today. In fact, if Infoplease is correct (and my memory tells me it is), this is the first assassination attempt on an American politician in nearly 30 years, the longest such interval since before Richard Lawrence took two shots at Andrew Jackson in 1835. Roughly 100 years afterward came one assassin – Dr. Carl Weiss, the fellow who sent Huey Long to the great beyond – whose reputation in some quarters is still better than that of his victim.
Of course, none of this will assuage the pain and loss for the relatives of the fallen, and one assassination victim remains one too many. That said, perhaps our shock from this comes from the fact that it has become so infrequent in recent years – to the point where the killing of an elected official became as unthinkable before yesterday as it was painfully inevitable two hundred, one hundred, or even fifty years ago.
This outrageous act could very well become a moment for us, as a nation, to determine how far we have to go in terms of civility, but only if we also recognize how far we’ve already come.